Glynn Cardy 10th April 2022
Michael Leunig has plied his cartooning and creating trade for decades, chiefly with the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. The purpose of a newspaper cartoon is multifarious. They are to make you smile. They are to make you think. They are also to confront you, and even sometimes comfort you.
Leunig in his cartooning spaces would occasionally write prayers. Which in itself is confrontational in a secular newspaper in a secular society. These were prayers, many of which pop up in our liturgies here at St Luke’s, that remind us that spirituality is not just for the religious but is a way of seeing and appreciating the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the messy ordinary all around.
In the preface of his book Common Prayer – a collection of these – he offers an image of prayer: a person kneeling before a duck.
It is a ridiculous image of prayer. But in its ridiculousness, like a ‘king of glory on a donkey’, it whispers to us. It whispers humility. Being thought of as a fool. It whispers upside-down wisdom. Listening to a duck who can’t speak English!? It whispers listening to the little, the insignificant. The person kneels not before the high, the mighty, those with power, but kneels before the lowly, weak, and those who are seemingly without anything which allegedly gives prestige, purpose, and profit. As Leunig says, “As everyone knows, a proud and upright man (woman) does not and cannot talk with a duck.”
The duck represents nature, beauty, the non-rational, the mysterious unsayable. Which is of course also within us, which we call the soul. This soul, our soul, though is often covered over, buried, under rational layers of what is sayable, explainable, useful, and expected. So, in a sense, a nonsense, the person kneeling before the duck is a person searching for their soul.
‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her own soul?’ asked the early Jesus communities. And for those of us raised on gain upon gain, on self upon self, the soul needs to be searched for.
When you kneel before a duck you get closer to the duck. Like when your cat rubs your head with its head, or your dog with its head. Head-to-head is close. Personal. Close enough to smell, feel, sense, each other’s body and, maybe soul.
This search, this humble kneeling before the little and weak, which any rational person would consider nonsense, seeds and breeds small things. Like pausing to notice. Like pausing to thank. Like pausing to wonder. Like what is our duty of care?
Above all this image of kneeling before a duck says that prayer is something we do. It’s not primarily something we say, or something we believe, or – heaven help us – a petition to a Mastercard God who’s got it all in his (sic) hands. No, prayer is primarily something we do. A duty of care, to use those old words. Care for the earth, its non-human and human communities, its balance, its vulnerabilities. All of which shape our soul, and to which our souls belong.
Kneeling in prayer has a history. When you knelt before a king you were baring the back of your neck to the potential of a swinging sword, offering your life if the king chose to take it. Kneeling was adopted for religious purposes – the supplicant offering their life to God the king.
But when God is re-imaged, reimagined, restored, away from Masters and Kings, as the early Jesus groups tried to do, then kneeling doesn’t cut it.
And kneeling before a duck flips, discombobulates, this whole petitioning God thing. Instead, we kneel to listen to the little ones enearthed in order to find, to regain (not for gain) our very soul.
Here’s a poem about such listening by Mikaere Greenslade:
god is small today
on a chair in the corner
eyes full of watch
hands at lap rest
all a wonder at our prayer
and our politics
do the little ones have
enough to eat and hold and love
do the dogs need
a walk in what is left
of eden’s shell”
All of which is by way of introduction to the image of this day: Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, and crowds waving palms and singing praise.
Firstly, in case we fall into the literalism that lawyers seem to love and poets think is death, there was never an actual factual donkey ride or a triumphal entry of any kind. Instead, this is an episode constructed by the early communities of Jesus, after his death, as they sought to make meaning of his life and death. They took verses, like Zechariah 9:9, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant… humble and riding on a donkey”, which is about the Messiah – that is to say the Anointed, the Christ – and they wove such verses into a narrative. It’s a process called midrash. They were trying to answer the question of why the Anointed died. And the answer had to be searched for and told in stories about how he lived.
Secondly, donkeys. They get mixed press. G.K. Chesterton has his donkey saying:
‘The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Chesterton, following the likes of Shakespeare who fashioned the term ‘ass’ as an insult, points to the abuse they often got and get. And he puns the word ‘dumb’.
Greek literature often had a negative view of donkeys. In the works of Homer, Aesop, and Apuleius, they are portrayed as stupid, stubborn, or servile at best. Not beautiful and powerful like a horse. This negative view had a large influence in later cultures, including medieval and renaissance Europe.
Hebrew literature on the other hand had a more positive view. They were work animals rather than war animals (like horses). Importantly, they show up in biblical stories where the humans need to change their focus or direction, and the donkey shows the way. Like the tale of that abusive ass called Balaam.
The donkey in the story could see God’s messenger (an angel with a drawn sword), whereas Balaam couldn’t. Rather than follow Balaam’s directives the donkey does what donkey thinks best, avoiding the divine threat, and taking the peace-loving let’s-get-out-of-here option. This happens three times. Three times Balaam is saved from the sword-wielding angel and three times the donkey is hit and abused. Until donkey speaks. I wonder whether donkey sounded like Eddie Murphy?
You could ask why the God in this tale didn’t reveal itself to Balaam earlier and save poor donkey from at least a couple of beatings. But such lawyer thoughts would kind of sink the story.
I like what the talking donkey says. Reminding Balaam of its loyalty, the donkey in effect says, “Would I beat you?” “Would I treat you like this if our roles were reversed?” “How about a little trust here?”
When we come to Palm Sunday this donkey-and-Balaam story is important. In a time when most people in the Jewish Jesus groups (that is to say all the Jesus groups) couldn’t read, their oral cultural reference library were the writings and stories of Hebrew literature. So, when we say donkey – and we might think Don Quixote, Anzac, or Shrek – they would think Balaam’s ass.
So, I invite you today to think about Palm Sunday with a Balaam overlay. Rather than imagine the story as about Jesus being hailed and honoured as a king of glory, as hollow as that hailing and honouring would prove to be, reimagine the story as about the relationship between Jesus and a loyal, peace-loving animal who has divine insight. A relationship up close. Personal. Soul-nurturing.
Is the donkey just a symbolic accessory to this Palm Sunday tale? The real point being the palms and the proclamation of Jesus’ messiahship. Or is the real point that we continue to miss the point? That it’s not about the humble Jesus riding on a lowly servile donkey instead of atop a powerful warhorse, a humble Jesus critiquing power with his upside-down spirituality. Rather its about getting down with all the ‘donkeys’ of the world, listening to their wisdom, their insights into the divine, and ignoring the baying of the praising fickle crowds.
If you want to find your soul, get off your high horse, get down, get grounded with those who are regularly ignored or derided or abused, who are seen as accessories, at best servants, but never teachers. Listen to the small gods, in the corners, whose eyes are full of watch. Listen for the whisper and learn and heed and seed its wisdom.